Featured as one of the top successful women in business by Toronto Star, Mikah Lee, a CEO of LPR Global, is a great role model for young people pursuing a career in business or entrepreneurship. The interview was conducted over dinner in downtown Toronto, where Mikah shared her stories of the challenges with gender discrimination in Korea, as well as her successes and passion in her career.
Tell us about how you first came to Canada?
I came here because I fell in love with a man from Canada. He visited Korea in 1988 as a photographer, and our long-term friendship evolved into love. I made a decision to follow him when he told me that he would be returning to his country. It starts out as a bit of a fairy tale. Too bad it doesn’t have a happy ending. Couldn’t you go back to Korea to restart? Even though the relationship didn’t work out, there wasn’t a good reason for me to go back at that point in my life, due in part to the fact that I started developing my own network in Canada. When I first arrived in Canada, I had started looking for a job only to quickly realize that job opportunities for someone in my situation and skill sets were limited at best. I think a good part of the reason was that I wasn’t very good at taking orders due to my background as an entrepreneur in Korea. I decided to attend U of T Rotman towards MBA degree to develop the missing skills. Before I graduated, I got a job at a company called Brightspark. Interestingly, the whole hiring process and employment in Canada made me reflect on my experiences in Korea, which were filled with all sorts of discrimination towards women at the workplace.
Could you elaborate on the experienced discrimination against women?
I went to the University of Wisconsin as an exchange student and ended up graduating there. After returning to Korea, I took additional exams such as TOEFL and TOEIC and received high scores. Even with good education and credentials, I was not able to land a job or even an interview. Frustrated and a bit angry, I decided to call one of the companies I applied and asked why I wasn’t getting an interview. The person I spoke to told me I was simply too good to work for the company. But I could sense that it wasn’t the skills that the company did not want; it was a ‘woman’ with a lot of skills that they were uncomfortable with. I got a group interview with Samsung later and one of the questions the interviewer asked me was what I would do if a male co-worker had asked me to make a cup of coffee for him. The fact that he asked me that question infuriated me. I told the interviewer that my parents didn’t spend thousands of dollars for my education to make coffee for a male co-worker.
What was the expected answer from the interviewer?
I think the key message was “Will you be able to accommodate and adapt to the workplace culture of male superiority”. In fact, this is how a woman next to me responded: “I would make a coffee for him but will ask him to make a coffee for me someday”. Nevertheless, I answered the question the way I did because the question itself made me very angry.
Another question I was asked related to going abroad due to work: What would I do if my father didn’t allow me from going? My response was: “My father would not disapprove, seeing he was supportive of my decision to go to the States to study.” Then he repeated, “But what if he does?” I said I had just given him the answer. I could tell where they were going with the question and gave them the same answer I gave to the coffee question. My decisions were not subject to the opinion of another male individual just because I am a woman.
So, what happened after that?
I opted to be an entrepreneur and started a company called, “Toybox.” At the time, it was considered to be a pioneer in the English education sector. My father didn’t support my decision to start a business at first, not because I left the managerial position at the Oxford University Press, but because he did not see there was a market for teaching English to young children. He eventually kicked me out of his house. Normally, children don’t leave their homes (in Korea, that is) in such circumstances but I said, “You think I can’t?” and left.
In Canada, how did you come to choose MBA among different options?
I did a little comparison exercise with expected salaries to the cost of education with various degrees. I thought the MBA was a good trade-off with regards to that. I was used to making good money back in Korea so I wanted something similar in Canada as well. Here, I had spent a good amount of time learning how to make a decent living and I knew I would excel in business. I also knew if I worked for somebody, there was going to be some trouble ahead.
You got your first job at Brightspark. How did it start?
I was in class during my MBA studies at University of Toronto. We had a strategy course and Mark (from Brightspark) was invited. He was an eloquent speaker. So, I wrote an email and asked for an interview. On the very next day, I got a call. I guess one life lesson here would be that you need to make the company feel that you really want to work for them. When that is recognized, the company will grant you the opportunity. You really have to take the initiative. After several rounds of interviews, I got the job. It was fun and I really loved working there.
Tell us about your experience at Brightspark.
Brightspark is a venture capital company making investments in software ventures, managing about $50 Million. My job was to evaluate company values and send the information to investors as a consultant, as well as being involved in their business strategy. Most companies were in the computer software business, where many of those involved didn’t have high business acumen. My role was to bridge that gap and help build their business strategy. I enjoyed the work so much: I remember heading into work at 6 a.m. and finishing 50% of my work by the time my colleagues arrived! I enjoyed the work but it only lasted for 6 months.
Strategy is a theory but operation is a real thing. After many years have passed by, now I know that if you execute well, even though it’s a flawed strategy, the odds may be in your favour. Similarly, no matter how good a strategy is, poor execution can lead to failure. Everything is up to the execution. If you have a dedicated sales force, you can survive.
I wanted to work on the operation side and when I pondered on the idea, it was time for me to leave. Strategy is all theory based and it just wasn’t my thing. I wanted to run the strategy.
Couldn’t you work at the Brightspark in the operational side?
They were not going to put me as VP or president. They just perceived me as a good analyst, good marketing consultant or business development consultant, strategy consultant. That was my value.
Then how one person who can be in your position (strategy or regular employee) becomes VP, or someone who can do the operation? Not just your case, but in general?
What I didn’t have was a network. When you know a lot of people and have a good network in place, you can sell a lot. When you don’t know anybody, it’s tough. As an immigrant with only 2 years under my belt, with most of those years in school, I knew I didn’t have a network. From the company’s perspective, our company was just the same. When people sell a lot and bring revenue, companies tend to pay them a lot. However, when people only do the services that the company needs, then they get a fair share of their work, not anything over and above. Then again, to be successful in sales, you need to know people, company characteristics and a lot more, unless you work for big conglomerate, which would already have an existing pipeline.
How the immigrants, visa students, who come to Canada with a limited network, prepare themselves to have a good network?
One of the most effective ways to build a network is by mingling within a cultural umbrella. Apart from the fact that you experience a lot of different things, it allows you to talk casually about common issues such as hockey, etc. If you don’t know about hockey, then read about it. It’ll ease up the situation a lot.
What are the challenges you face while running your company and how do you deal with them?
Challenges are endless! But I think, broadly speaking, there are two types of challenges. One group of challenges are specific circumstances which a company must endure and overcome. Those are more of a long-term homework. Then, there are many daily challenges that pops-up out of nowhere. What I believe in, however, is that there is a solution every time and when you overcome that challenge, you make a leap into the next level. So, the more challenges you handle, the stronger you become. That’s why it matters how many years you’ve been in the business, because it correlates with how many challenges you’d overcome. That’s also why people who have been in the business for a long time are very resilient, strong and have a great perseverance. When you look at those people internally, they will never break down. They always maintain their composure.
Do you think there are certain of people- or traits- that suit C.E.O.s?
Every C.E.O.s I’ve seen is nurtured. As I said, the more challenges you take, the smarter and stronger you become. That being said, I can’t really think of a clear cut answer to that question. But I suppose some people are born without fear, fused with natural born experience and challenges loving. Maybe that’s a prototype of someone who is suit to be a C.E.O.
What would you say your main drives are?
I think that I’m too drowned in work. My life is work, and some people may say that that’s sad. But what makes me happy is that my company is very unique. I think it’s going to grow much better and much faster, so I’m really excited about that. I think happiness matters, and I’m happy with what I’m doing. But the drive isn’t with money, it’s the belief that my work is progressing and is unique. Who knows if I’m going to die tomorrow, but as long as I’m happy doing what I’m doing today, I’ll be okay.
Where do you see yourself in five years from now?
Right now we do consulting and product sales and we need services for implementation of our products. I want to expand the company to provide such service, so that we not only sell the product but also provide support. If I can implement this plan, I could offer the professional immigrant engineers an opportunity to build their career in Canada. It will be my way of supporting the community. I’ve been lucky all my life and a lot of it has to do with what I received from the community. Providing support is something I want to do. I don’t want to see immigrants suffer despite their actual abilities.
About Mikah Lee
Mikah Lee, CEO of LPR Global Inc. and author of two best-selling books, is in a unique position to address cultural and business challenges facing companies that are expanding globally.
Prior to founding LPR Global Inc. ( www.lprglobal.com, yr 2001), Ms. Lee was a Senior Consultant at Brightspark (yr 2000) , a venture capital firm in Toronto, Canada. At Brightspark, Ms. Lee evaluated investment opportunities and provided strategic consulting and market positioning for investees. Before she arrived in Canada (yr 1998), Ms. Lee founded, Toybox (yr 1993), a young children's language school and was a marketing manager (1992)at Panmun Press the Korean distributor for Oxford University Press.
In addition to her role as LPR Global's CEO, Ms. Lee is also a best selling author in South Korea. Her first two books: Choon-Hyang, the Korean Madonna (2004) and Business Email lays Golden Eggs (2006) remain popular with those interested in improving their written English business skills.
Ms. Lee earned her undergraduate degree in English Education from Korea University (1991), where she was also awarded a Fulbright-inspired international scholarship to study at the University of Wisconsin for a year. She obtained her MBA from the University of Toronto, Rotman School of Management (2000).
Interview Date : May 1, 2011
Interviewers: Jooseok Lee, Hyungbin Kim
Editors: Hyunjun Park
Photographer: Gerald Law
The views expressed in the interviews are not necessarily reflective of JoinTheLeaders's opinion.
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